The UNESCO mess

The Obama Administration says there will be further cutoffs if other UN agencies follow suit in recognising Palestine.

UNESCO conference
Palestine became the newest member of UNESCO, the UN’s cultural body, after a vote  [EPA]

It was bound to happen sooner or later. At some point, both the president and Congress would be faced with a clear choice between US national interests and the demands made by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his powerful Washington lobby.

In the larger sense, it happens all the time. US policy toward the Palestinians endangers our interests throughout the Muslim world, including – first and foremost – our civilian and military personnel in the Middle East, as well as our strategic and economic interests.

But usually, as is the case with some Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights like the Gaza blockade, the situation is not completely clear-cut. The Palestinians charge illegality under international law; the Israelis cite a different law.

And the US can (and invariably does) say nothing, or it takes the side of the Israelis. The entire world expects that from the United States by now and understands precisely why we operate that way. It understands that Israel is an important friend whose security we would never jeopardise.

They understand quite clearly that it is our absurd system of campaign funding that dictates that we follow Israel’s lead on defending the occupation and preventing Palestinians from achieving any kind of recognition or sovereignty. The US always chooses Netanyahu’s interests over the rights of the Palestinians.

Watershed vote

However, Monday’s United Nations vote to admit Palestine into the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) presented US policymakers with a watershed choice. US interests and the Israeli government’s desires are directly pitted against each other.

To put it simply, Israel expected the United States to quit UNESCO and any other international agency that admits Palestine to membership. Hard US interests would dictate that we not even consider such a move.

This is not a question of US interests vs Israeli interests, which is why I refer to the Israeli government’s desires. Israel opposes UNESCO membership for Palestine as part and parcel of its policy to deny recognition of Palestine in any forum until Israel grants permission. It’s pure symbolism.

But for the United States, the implication of the policy of withdrawing from an important UN agency because its members recognise Palestine affects our national security in very direct ways.

It is happening because, under pressure from Israel and its lobby, the United States Congress in the 1990s passed legislation requiring the United States to not contribute to any UN entity that admits Palestine as a member.

According to former Senator Tim Wirth (D-CO) at issue are two laws from the early 1990s that prohibit the United States from providing financial contributions to any United Nations entity that admits Palestine as a member. The laws are strict: if Palestine is admitted to a UN agency, the United States must stop paying its membership dues. The restrictions provide no authority for the president to waive these prohibitions even if it is in the national interest to do so.

With a clear majority of countries around the world prepared to back Palestinian ambitions at the United Nations, the United States is poised to lose its leverage over several UN bodies that advance American interests and promote our ideal.

As Wirth explains, UNESCO “leads global efforts to bring clean water to the poor, promotes educational and curriculum building in the developing world, and manages a tsunami early warning system in the Pacific, among other important tasks. This critical work would be jeopardized if UNESCO’s top funder stops paying its bills.”

Political fallout

According to Politico Jonathan Allen, the funding cut would have a damaging effect on “American tech companies – such as Apple, Google and Microsoft – and movie studios that use UNESCO to open markets in the developing world and rely upon an associated entity, the World Intellectual Property Organization, to police international disputes over music, movies and software.”

Potentially, the damage can be much, much worse if Palestine seeks and gains recognition from such other critical UN entities as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The IAEA is the agency that the US government has relied on to restrain nuclear weapon development (and proliferation) by Iran, North Korea, and others. The WHO works with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to protect us from potential pandemics like the avian flu.

No matter. Pursuant to the congressional ban, if the Palestinians join any of these entities, the US stops its funding and is, essentially, out.

Thanks to a powerful lobby, the United States would not have a seat at the table when critical matters of life and death are discussed.

Unfortunately, at this point, it appears that both the White House and Congress will put Israel’s demands above US interests of the most fundamental kind.

In fact, within hours of the vote today, the Obama administration announced that it is cutting off funding to UNESCO – cutoffs that, no doubt, will be followed if other UN agencies follow suit.

Truth be told, the Obama administration has no choice. The law gives the president no discretion about withdrawing aid if a UN agency recognizes Palestine. In fact, AIPAC made sure that the traditional “national security” waiver was not included in the law.

That means that President Obama is in a box, although Congress could, if it chooses, vote to waive the provisions of the law.

But that would mean putting US national interests above pleasing campaign donors. When was the last time that happened?

MJ Rosenberg is a senior foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.